The Bitter End

18. November, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #114: Endgame and Watt, Cal Performances, November 17.

Rosaleen Linehan, Des Keogh and Owen Row in Endgame. Photo by Alan Stanford.

By Sam Hurwitt

Dublin’s Gate Theatre knows Samuel Beckett backward and forward, having done full retrospectives of all the great Irish modernist’s plays more than once. The Gate does a lot more than Beckett, of course—it’s also well known for its Pinter productions—but its Berkeley visits courtesy of Cal Performances have been distinctly Beckettian, with a breathtaking double bill of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape in 2000 and a return of Godot in 2006.

Now the Gate is back with two more Beckett pieces, Endgame and Watt, which were performed in a single evening on Thursday but play separately through Sunday. Watt isn’t a play at all but a novel that Beckett wrote in occupied France during World War II. The actor Barry McGovern performs excerpts from the novel that he selected to give “the essence” of the novel, directed by Tom Creed.

Interestingly, this literary recital is the standout of the two shows. Watt could be called a simple story if there were anything simple about it. It’s just the story of an odd, unassuming man’s journey to the house where he’s been hired as a domestic and an account of his strange routine there.

The language is marvelously rich, poetic, profound, and often hilarious., but what really makes it work is how compellingly McGovern relates it with his resonant, nuanced voice and terrifically expressive face. It’s a tremendous performance.

McGovern pronounces Watt as if it were “what,” without the aspirated h that no one bothers with anyway. In the story this leads to a “Who’s on first?”-style exchange when someone asks Watt’s name. There’s often a brief pause when the name starts a sentence, so that it sounds as if he’s asking an incredulous question.

But the real star of the show is Beckett’s language. He describes Watt in great detail, from his unnerving attempt at a smile to his odd manner of walking. The text zooms off frequently into extended tangents and lists, reveling in redundancy and upturned phrases. Watt is a text that’s difficult to follow in any linear sense, but it offers seemingly endless rewards in delicious turns of phrase: “The only way to speak of nothing is to speak of it as if it were something”; “If there were two things that Watt disliked, one was the moon, and the other was the sun.”

No sooner does Watt arrive in the house where he’ll act as servant to the reclusive Mr. Knott than the man he’s replacing regales him with a tremendously long monologue that’s a masterpiece in itself, full of breathtaking, seemingly interminable lists. “Personally of course I regret everything,” this man says. “Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure, from beginning to end.”

My favorite of these litanies is among the most maddening repetitive, which when read with deadpan delivery just gets funnier as it goes along: “And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s and my mother’s father’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s father’s and my father’s father’s mother’s and my mother’s mother’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s mother’s and other peoples fathers’ and mothers’ and fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ and fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ and mothers’ fathers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ fathers’ and fathers’ fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ mothers’ fathers’ and fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ mothers’. “

Another section exhaustively catalogues every possible variation of Watt sitting in a woman’s lap, or she in his.  At one point he obsesses over a pot that, for whatever reason, can’t properly be called a pot—every attempt he makes to call it a pot just doesn’t stick. It’s a dizzyingly dense and tangled piece, and it’s hard not to lose the thread at some point or another, but it’s a delight just to get lost in it and enjoy the journey, as funny as it is bitter and downbeat. As the dustbin-dwelling mother Nell says in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

The Gate’s visit with Endgame came at the same time as the good news that American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff’s previously planned production of Twelfth Night in May will be replaced by Endgame with Bill Irwin as Hamm, in a double bill with Beckett’s Play.

Debuted in 1957, Endgame takes place in a room by the sea, and we are given to understand that outside the world has ended long ago, and there are no other people left. Here the blind and chairbound Hamm and his limping, grumbling servant Clov live in a seemingly eternal routine, always bickering and wishing their dreary lives would end, that each other or themselves would finally die. Hamm can’t stand, and the stiff-legged Clov is unable to sit. Hamm’s parents are kept in a pair of matching dustbins, their every utterance irritating him as they demand food or natter among themselves about the ill-remembered past.

Alan Stanford’s Gate Theatre staging handles the comedy in the Beckett classic particularly well, though the energy flags in some of the longer speeches and stories so that attention may waver, only to be snapped back into alertness when the sharp back-and-forth patter resumes.

Eileen Diss’s set creates an effectively dingy, claustrophobic room, the walls converging toward the rear to create an illusion of depth. Stooped and shuffling, McGovern’s Clov makes a long ritual of moving a stepladder from one end of the room to the other to open the curtains on two high windows.  Then, as if just remembering, he slowly moves the ladder again to climb up and actually look through each window, emitting a perfunctory chuckle. He gives the same mirthless cackle as he removes a sheet from the two bins and looks inside each one, and again as he takes a sheet off of the seated, sleeping Hamm and peers under the blood-spotted handkerchief over his face.

McGovern’s voice is grave and gravelly as he tries again and again to leave, waylaid by Hamm’s insistent needs for being pushed around the room, pain medication and argument.  “I’ll leave you,” Clov says again and again, each time in exactly the same way.  “I have…things…to do.” What he wants to go do is stand and stare at the wall in his small, unseen kitchen, 10 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet. He also wants to leave for good, but that’s too much to hope for. The two are as codependent as they are the very embodiment of world-weariness.

Owen Roe is appealingly hammy as Hamm, with a deep voice and dramatic, rolling tones. Des Keogh is a pleasingly dotty, cackling coot as father Nagg, doting on Rosaleen Linehan in the adjacent bin as mother Nell, while she in turn is sometimes playful but mostly weary, while Nagg tries to entertain her with shaggy-dog stories.

Nell’s observation that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” aptly sums up the Gat’s production. It’s awfully funny, and well worth seeing for that, but the sense of why this story is being told aside from for absurdity’s sake remains elusive.  It’s not that Clov’s question, “Why this farce, day after day?,” is ever intended to be answered, but there’s a sense of resonance lacking underneath the deftly executed repetitions of the routine they despair of ever being freed of. “Clov, we’re not beginning to…mean something?” Hamm asks, but there’s little danger of that.

Endgame and Watt play through November 20 at Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment